Amnesia has been so overused in movies — a convenient narrative device that effectively forces characters to become detectives into their own past — that it’s startling to encounter a film in which someone really does lose his memory. What’s doubly fascinating about the true-life case of Alex Lewis, in which the surprises just keep on coming, is that the one person the young man recognized when he awakened from the coma following a brain-wiping motorcycle accident was identical twin Marcus, who’d shared many of his formative experiences. But can someone reconstruct his sense of self via another person’s memories?
That question and countless others drive director Ed Perkins’ puzzle-box portrait “Tell Me Who I Am,” a neatly constructed re-creation of the process by which Alex Lewis relied on Marcus to fill in the gaps of his missing identity. What never occurred to Alex was that his brother might be rewriting entire swaths of their childhood in the process. Who would do something like that? And more to the point: Why?
For those wanting to discover every twist of this psychological profile for themselves, I may already have said too much. (Be warned that every detail can feel like a spoiler in discussing a story as singular as this.) “Tell Me Who I Am” may be a documentary, but it has been heavily manipulated by its director and subjects to steer viewers along a particular path. Like Alex, audiences come in blind, trusting the filmmakers to paint a picture, and this one gets progressively darker as it goes.
The first enigma involves the twins’ parents, a wealthy and well-connected couple who appear to have been unusually strict with their two sons, forbidding them access to certain parts of their spacious but overcrowded home. Then, around the time the boys turned 14, they moved out of the house and took up lodging in the garden shed, putting further emotional distance between them and their already detached father figure.
Those buildings feature here as well, lit in eerie blue light and captured from disconcerting angles, like the establishing shots from a horror movie. But is this merely a ghost story, or are the terrors somehow greater? Exactly what kind of evil haunts the geography of the twins’ childhood? At one point, the camera creeps up into the attic and discovers a space full of the kids’ possessions, including piles of Christmas and birthday presents their parents had withheld from them. What could possibly have motivated this deprivation of pleasure? And who were the presents from, if mom and dad weren’t the gift-giving type?
Not knowing is somehow worse than the answer, and Perkins divides the film into three parts, shaping the narrative after one of those compelling podcasts, where each installment recasts our entire understanding of the subject. In the first, we meet Alex, as much a mystery to us as he is himself. Next, Marcus (who had been helping to explain the situation from the beginning) reveals that much of what he told Alex was invented — a “gift,” in which he gave his brother the childhood he thought Alex deserved, using the lies to bury what really happened to both of them. And then in the last segment, the two brothers sit down face to face and confront the reality of the past.
“I was never questioning anything,” Alex admits. “Because what is normal really? Normal is what you know, and normal is what your family is.” Alex was 18 when he hit his head, and 32 when he discovered that, thanks to Marcus’ revisionist memories, he knew as little about his past then as he did immediately after the accident. His mind had been filled with misinformation.
If your head is spinning with thoughts of child abuse and possibly even pedophilia, you’re not far from the truth — although as Alex says when Marcus finally comes clean, “I just didn’t know the magnitude of that.” Some details, such as why Marcus insisted on denying his father’s dying request for forgiveness, are never given satisfying answers. Actually, none of the movie’s answers are satisfying in the conventional sense, although Perkins does delve quite far into some of the most sinister aspects of the twins’ upbringing.
One senses a certain sleight of hand in the film’s technique, which relies quite heavily on music and moody, Errol Morris-style reenactment (including sets that stand in for the Lewis’ house) to misdirect us. Most intriguingly, however, it asks audiences’ brains to operate as Alex’s once had to, taking a few ambiguous facts or context-free photographs and connecting the dots via their own imaginations.
The result could be viewed as a meditation on memory, an Oliver Sacks-like case study or a deeply unethical experiment in which two identical twins are allowed to cope with abuse in completely different ways. Before Perkins met them, the brothers co-wrote a book about their experience, which bears the same name. In the documentary, the director appears to be interviewing the twins separately, but he’s really just filming them as they recite their own story. They’ve chosen their words carefully; they cry on cue; and they share just enough, while holding back an enormous amount of information.
That’s their right, of course, but by the end, there are large segments that still don’t add up. More peculiar still, once the twins have had their cathartic moment, neither one seems the slightest bit interested in holding the culprits of their childhood suffering accountable. It wasn’t just their parents, both dead now, who abused them. If “Serial” could influence the fate of Adnan Sayed, surely the Lewises’ book, followed by this documentary, has the power to expose the monsters who preyed on them as children. In a scripted thriller, one can bet that unlocking the source of Alex’s trauma would bring all of his memories flooding back. Here, the process merely points the way to an even deeper mystery.